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Name Games: Facebook vs. Teachbook

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The world's largest social network will probably never "friend" this group of enterprising teachers.

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This might appear to be a vulnerable time for Facebook. The company is fending off negative press from the movie The Social Network, about founder Mark Zuckerberg and the birth of Facebook, which in the Hollywood portrayal is "a classical story of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and jealousy," as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it.

But Facebook, with Zuckerberg at the top, has always been something of a bare-knuckler brawler, holding dearly onto its name and pushing aside any people, inside and outside the company, who stand in its path. So it comes as no surprise that Facebook, as announced in August, is suing start-up site Teachbook.com for using the word "book" in its name.

Teachbook, you ask? It may be unfamiliar to you, but obviously not to Facebook. The latter, which has over 500 million members worldwide, alleges that Teachbook, which has two employees and a few dozen members, is "rid[ing] on the coattails of the fame and enormous goodwill of the Facebook trademark," according to court documents filed in US District Court in San Jose.

Teachbook, which is based outside Chicago in Northbrook, Ill., provides tools for teachers to manage their classrooms and share resources like lesson plans. Teachbook's managing director, Greg Shrader, said the use of "book" in its name makes sense because it focuses on schools.

"We've been sitting here scratching our heads for the last couple of days," Shrader told the Chicago Tribune in late August after Facebook filed its suit for trademark infringement, among other allegations. "We're trying to understand how Facebook, a multibillion-dollar company, feels this small enterprise in Chicago is any type of threat."

Sharer added: "Effectively, they're bombing a mosquito here, and we're not sure why they want to do that."

As Facebook argues in its lawsuit, "If others could freely use 'generic plus book' marks for online networking services targeted to that particular generic category of individuals, the suffix 'book' could become a generic term for 'online community/networking services' or 'social networking services.' That would dilute the distinctiveness of the Facebook marks."

In the suit, Facebook alleges that Teachbook has caused it competitive injury and has diluted its brand. Which seems hard to accept given that Teachbook hadn't even launched at the time Facebook sued. But that is beyond the point.

"At the end of the day, they're just trying to bully us and we're not going to roll over," Shrader said.

Teachbook filed a trademark application in March 2009, and according to Shrader, the US Patent and Trademark Office said it found "no similar marks" on record. But before the government approved it, Facebook opposed the registration. Shrader told the Tribune he thought the two sides were working constructively on a resolution, but now he expects to file an opposition in court. The case was expected to go to trail this fall.

In the suit, Facebook alleges that Teachbook had branded itself on its company website as an alternative to Facebook and MySpace, in that teachers sometimes are sometimes not allowed to set up accounts because of the danger of students finding their personal information.

"Of course, the Teachbook folks are free to create an online network for teachers or whomever they like, and we wish them well in that endeavor," Facebook said in a statement. "What they are not free to do is trade on our name or dilute our brand while doing so."

This isn't the first time Facebook has gone after a smaller site. The travel site TripTrace was once called PlaceBook before Facebook sued it to change its name.

"We didn't believe anyone could own the word 'book' apart from 'face,'" reads a post on TripTrace's company blog. "We knew of a number of websites that had similar names that were clearly not copying Facebook: Cookbook, Blackbook, eBook, RunBook ... Racebook, Casebook, Tastebook."

But the site relented to Facebook because as a start-up it was in no position to fight. We will see if Teachbook decides to take on Goliath.

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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